Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I don't know

As an engineer, what I found interesting in the news reports on the delay in the launch of Atlantis, the space shuttle was NASA’s admission that they had no clue what the problem was. The fuel gauges were faulty, but the engineers had no idea at all what was causing the snags. “We are scratching our heads” said the launch director. "We are going to sleep on the problem a bit".

Such admission of ignorance is extremely rare and we don’t come across too many instances of a politician or scientist or a coach admitting that he or she did not know what the problem was. They are always required to act confident and state that they are in complete control, even when it is obvious they are not. To say “I don’t know” is to invite ridicule.

During his stay at Noakhali in 1947, Gandhi was heard muttering to himself, “Kya karun, kya karun” ( “what am I to do?”). The man who had demonstrated an amazing ability to pull out ready answers and responses to complex situations in four decades of the freedom struggle had the humility to admit he didn’t know what to do. Describing him as magnificent in this setting, V.S.Naipaul in his “India, the wounded civilization” admired Gandhi’s candour in admitting he didn’t have answers, while at the same time never losing the will to act.

If a Narendra Modi or Karunanidhi were to admit that they had no clue how to bring some situation under control, they would be torn to pieces by the opposition. So, with characteristic bravado, they will try to talk themselves out when they are cornered.

On the other hand, admission of ignorance, when stretched to an extreme can be exasperating as it was in the case of Tony “I don’t know” Snow, President Bush’s Press secretary, who used to stonewall the media with persistent replies of “I don’t know’ to any of their queries.

Also, as Donald Rumsfeld famously obfuscated once, “….there are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that's basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.”.

Do you have any clue what he meant. I don’t.


Sowmya said...

what rumsfeld said is straight from the johari window. i used to have a link explaining it, but can't find it. The wikipedia page is a little helful

Raj said...

Sowmya, it is an 'attempted Joharis window' alright. But, a Joharis window is not supposed to have the same parameters on the x as well as y axis.

Lekhnee said...

He forgot to mention the unknown knowns - there are some things we know, but we do not know that we know them because they are part of our subconscious :)

lekhni said...

Sorry, the previous comment was me. I can see blogger doesn't like wordpress users.